Scientists have identified a man who could be “patient zero” of the plague that caused the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages.
A man who died more than 5,000 years ago in what is now Latvia was reportedly infected with the oldest known strain of the disease, according to new evidence.
The plague swept across Europe in the 13th century and wiped out up to half of the continent’s population.
Subsequent waves of plague occurred over several centuries and claimed millions of lives.
“This is the oldest identified plague victim that we have so far,” said Ben Krause-Kyora from Kiel University about the remains of the 5,300-year-old man.
The man was buried with three other people in a Neolithic cemetery in Latvia on the banks of the Salac River, which flows into the Baltic Sea.
The researchers sequenced DNA from the bones and teeth of all four individuals and tested them for bacteria and viruses.
They were surprised to discover that a hunter-gatherer – a man in his twenties – was infected with an ancient strain of plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.
“He was likely bitten by a rodent, caught the primary Yersinia pestis infection, and died a few days ago [depois] – maybe a week later – septic shock, ”said Krause-Kyora.
Scientists believe the ancient variety may have originated around 7,000 years ago when agriculture was just beginning in Central Europe.
They believe the bacterium could have leaked from animals to humans multiple times without causing major outbreaks.
But over time it adapted to infect humans and evolved into the form known as bubonic plague, which spread through fleas and spread across medieval Europe, causing millions of deaths.
The idea that the first tribes of the plague spread slowly contradicts many theories about the development of human civilization in Europe and Asia and casts doubt on the hypothesis that the disease caused large population declines in Western Europe in the late Neolithic.
Other researchers praised the study but said it did not rule out the possibility that the plague was widespread in Europe at the time.
People often contract plague after being bitten by a rodent flea that carries the disease-causing bacteria or from interacting with an animal infected with it.
The disease still exists today, but can be treated with antibiotics if diagnosed early.
The research was published in the journal Cell Reports.